The anxiety started early and unexpectedly. Wembley announced a ‘100% bag check’ and my mind started racing. What did they know? Did ISIS consider the lower league’s showcase final to be a ‘soft target’? I’ve never been that bothered about watching the Johnstone’s Paint Trophy, I definitely didn’t want to die doing it.
Then there were the 35,000 Oxford fans travelling down the Chiltern line. Twitter ablaze with ungodly start times; would I be too late leaving when I’d planned? What if I couldn’t get on a train? What if I lost my daughter in the crush? A sense of dread about everything apart from the game itself.
In the end ISIS didn’t attack, we did get on the train and my daughter had the time of her life. The place buzzed in the spring sun. We passed a playground full of children dressed in Barnsley and Oxford shirts. They played together, like hamsters in a cage, oblivious to their rivalries until some Barnsley kids, completely without malice, commandeered a roundabout chanting ‘Oxford BOO’. An anthropologists dream.
It was more like a works outing than a football match. People ate lunch in Prezzo, perused the shopping centre shops and stopped to chat awkwardly with people they only vaguely knew because they happen to sit near each other at home games.
A cup final devoid of tension; while the Milk Cup Final in ’86 was the pinnacle of our history and the play-off final critical to our very survival, this wasn’t even the most important game of the week.
But it was difficult not to be impressed by the mass movement of the yellow army. Reassuring that, though you and I choose to watch Mansfield at home over the Bake Off, many thousands of others are with you in spirit; today they’re here in body.
I met Brinyhoofat the Bobby Moore statue, we bumped into each other with our dads at the Milk Cup Final 30 years ago. Last time it was accidental; this time it was planned; completing some kind of circle. We headed to our seats via escalators, bar code scanners and glass doorways. This isn’t 1986 anymore, this isn’t any kind of football we’ve grown up with.
Oh what a joy, a bank of yellow and blue, a happy, united, contented club. A glorious noise. We see a couple of people wearing Weiner Neustadt t-shirts; what Brinyhoof calls ‘Our Sex Pistols at the Manchester Lesser Free Trade Hall’, one day we’ll all claim to have been there, at the start. But, for now, this, we’re all here for this.
In the stadium the pre-match entertainment is underway, it’s cheesy and choreographed, but absolutely necessary. Wembley is so comfortable it feels like you’re at the theatre, it’s tempting to sit passively and enjoy the show. Something needs to ignite it. There are flags and flames, women in tight tops and short skirts, men in military uniform – an anthropologists dream.
Eventually the players appear, Wembley’s great design flaw is that they come on from the side of the pitch rather than one end as at the old stadium. That epically long walk could break players, this short walk from the side doesn’t have the same effect.
The great unspoken is finally spoken, Jake Wright drops to the bench. It’s been on the cards for weeks, he hasn’t done anything wrong this season, but Chey Dunkley’s form makes him hard to drop. Joe Skarz isn’t fit after a season of sterling service, life just isn’t fair.
We start well, though, looking entirely comfortable. After some probing, Alex MacDonald swings a huge cross over and Callum O’Dowda attacks the ball, beating his man and nodding home. The stadium fills with noise; O’Dowda, one of our own, belts down the flank until he’s caught by his team mates. Modern day footballers are too knowing of the cameras that film them, goal celebrations are choreographed for the TV, but this is visceral and real. If his team mates hadn’t caught him, he’d have ended up in the crowd never to return.
Half-time comes and it’s difficult to imagine being more comfortable in a final at Wembley. There’s none of the grizzly angst of the Play-off final or the shock of the Milk Cup.
My half-time routine was pretty straight forward; a trip to the toilet and then a drink. I have to queue for both. I walk back past groups of people casually drinking pints and plastic cups of wine. As I get back to my seat the players are already out. There are thousands of people still under the concourse as we kick off, it creates an oddly sleepy atmosphere.
And it kills us, Barnsley have to come out positively if they’re to get anything out of the game. We need to be disciplined, we need to slow everything down. Call it inexperience, but Wembley is a big pitch, legs become heavy, particularly after a half-time break. We need to hold out for 15 to 20 minutes, control the game, but that’s not really our game at all. Suddenly everyone looks like they’re wading through treacle.
In a flash we’re 2-1 down and then there’s a moment of magic from Adam Hamill. The game threatened to be a shoot-out between Hamill and Kemar Roofe. Hamill took his moment, Roofe didn’t, and that pretty much made the difference between the two teams. Everything else was equal.
Roofe does make his contribution, providing a perfect cross for Danny Hylton to make it 3-2. In the context of the game, it’s meaningless, but it’s a great moment for the club and players.
Waring and Bowery come on, but we’re missing John Lundstram’s more expansive passing. Ruffels has been excellent but his compact game means the strikers are picking up balls 30-40 yards from goal. Man, it’s such a big pitch.
There is no Potter moment, no Jeremy Charles moment, the game peters out. I’m not sure I wanted extra-time, in the end, you know, because of the trains and ISIS. I wanted to win, I didn’t want to lose our unbeaten Wembley record, particularly not like this, but losing was never going to be a heartbreaker. I just hope that the players recognise it for what it is and that it doesn’t distract them from the real objective of the season. Not just because it’s important, but because we, they, deserve the recognition for what our club has become in the last 12 months.